Author Topic: RVG Interviews Firebird Software.  (Read 10617 times)

Offline zapiy

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RVG Interviews Firebird Software.
« on: September 30, 2013, 19:16:04 PM »
[align=center:226wogt2]

[size=120]Here is our interview with the iconic British software house Firebird Software. Taking part was Richard Hewison and James Leavey who both worked for this Firebird at one time or another.

Firebird was founded in 1984 as a publishing label of Telecomsoft, itself a subsidiary of British Telecom. Initially Firebird Software released games primarily for the budget market (under the Firebird and Silverbird labels) before moving into the regular retail market by creating Rainbird software.

During the 1980's it developed and published a wide variety of games for the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and other systems.

A Small selection of there games.[/size]


[size=120]
Elite
Rainbow Islands
Rick Dangerous
Star Trek: The Rebel Universe
Mr Heli
Crosswize
Black Lamp
Bubble Bobble
Return to Genesis
On The Tiles
Star Pilot
Druid
Warhawk
Mega-Bucks
Virtual Reality Vol. 2
Quartz

Anyway we hope you enjoy this interview and thanks to Richard and James for taking part.
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[size=110]zapiy

Tell us a little about you and how you got in the the gaming sector?


Richard

Sheer fluke. I was writing stuff for BBC 2 CEEFAX (a text adventure helpline and games reviews) and someone I got to know on Prestel/Micronet got a job at TelecomSoft.3 months later he called me out-of-the-blue and told me there was a vacancy in the Games Department. I got interviewed and got the job of a games tester a few months before my 21st birthday.




Rogue Trooper

What ever became of the following game Eye Of The Moon' (Mike Singleton) and Tyger! Tyger! (A Black Tiger clone for C64, by Garry Liddon-adverts for the game did appear in Zzap64)?


Richard

The much missed Mike Singleton got distracted by other games! He was asked to help out on a few projects, and so Eye of the Moon kept being delayed. (I wrote about this in my Retro Gamer article all about Beyond Software, in issue #64). In the end, the moment had passed and Mike had always intended on returning to it. In the end, he wrote LOM III: The Citadel for the PC instead in the mid-90s. I had the lucky job of testing that game and writing the manual that came in the box. Outside of Mike, I think I was the second person to ever read the third LOM novella before it was published with the game. Mike hadn't written much on EOTM for the spectrum but I am aware that someone who worked at Maelstrom Games was also doing some work on a C64 version.

Tyger! Tyger! was unfinished. You'd have to ask Gary Liddon for the reasons, but from what I saw of it at the time (and Games That Weren't 64 managed to resurrect a work-in-progress version a while ago now), it had nice visuals on the C64 but the game itself was fairly standard stuff. Gary tried to make real progress on it by being based in the TelecomSoft office for a few weeks at one point, but it was really a big distraction and the whole thing veered spectacularly off course in the
end.


Rogue Trooper

Did anyone ever win the prize offered in Gyron ( a Porsche 924 LUx or equivalent in cash) and:Did you ever expect them too? at was this the 1 and only time you ever offered such a prize for beating a game?


Richard

Yes. It was won by a young guy from Spain - 16 year old Juan Manuel Perez Vazquez - who won the European heat. He opted for the money as he was too young to drive!


Rogue Trooper

What was the thinking behind the unusual tape cases for games like Chimera (which i loved on A8+C64). They were bigger and a 'clam-like' design. Guessing it was marketing idea?


Richard

That's before my time (James might have answered this one) but I would say that the plastic on those things was very brittle and finding a mint one these days is nigh-on impossible! ;-)


Rogue Trooper

Fond memories of your artwork used in various adverts (Druid, IO, Flying Shark etc) but 2 questions 1)Who did you use? and 2) Given that Flying shark is meant to be set in WW1, how come the plane on the magazine advert is from WWII?


Richard

A number of artists were used. I really only know a few of them. David Rowe did a number of the paintings, including Flying Shark and The Sentinel. Herman Serrano also did a number (and he was also very talented at doing art on the 16-bit computers as well as the traditional paintings used on the boxes). I can't answer the Flying Shark question, but it might have been led by the artwork done for the original Taito coin-op.


Rogue Trooper

Intensity was an unusual game from Andrew braybrook, as it featuredno shooting, did you ever get any complaints from people who'd boughtit expecting something like Uridium?


Richard

Not that I can remember. It was a deliberate decision to do something that wasn't a shoot 'em up. As a side note, that was the very first game I ever professioanlly play-tested on my very first day working for TelecomSoft. It remains one of my favourites too!


Rogue Trooper

Star Trek: Rebel Universe i bought on ST and again on C64, i loved it, but at the time the hype for the ST version which had built up was huge, lot of the press felt very let down by final game, what were the issues which effected it during development?


Richard

Loads! Some of this is second-hand info, as I was only involved with the later PC and C64 conversions. When BT bought Beyond from EMAP, it was felt that a big title needed to mark the event so they went for the Star Trek license and got it. The game design was a bit weak, and Mike Singleton was brought in to try and spruce things up a bit. In the end it just didn't really satisfy anyone; neither the Trek fans, 3D fans, adventure fans, etc. It kind of fell between all those genre stools.

It funny but I became the resident expert on the game when the PC and C64 conversions came around, as I play-tested both. I was asked to write some tips for Commodore User and they ended up calling me the C64 programmer!


Rogue Trooper

Rainbow Islands, developed under Telecomsoft, released via Ocean, care to remind us what happened there?


Richard

TelecomSoft and Graftgold did all the work, then BT sold TelecomSoft to MicroProse and it delayed a number of games from being completed. Rainbow Islands had to be published by a certain date, else Taito could withdraw the license to publish and take the already written conversions with them. It was their prerogative and I also felt at the time that MicroProse didn't have the necessary expertise to deal with a Japanese company like Taito and so they lost the license. Taito already had a relationship with Ocean so they snapped the deal up. Must have been the easiest hit they ever released!


Rogue Trooper

You supported the Atari 8 Bit Range, which was a godsend to likesof myself, few questions on that if you don't mind:

A8 Thrust looked bit naff compared to the C64 version, was it given to different coder? and in general did you 'prefer' the A8 versions of you games to look as close to the C64 version as possible?.2)was very surprised (and delighted) to see Druid ported to A8, how did that come about as it was a very late commercial release for the A8, also word had it the coder of A8 Druid, John Crowdy had been assigned the job of converting Druid II: Enlightenment to the A8, was this true? and if so, did any work begin on it?


Richard

Sorry, I have no info on the general Atari 8-bit side of things. I don't remember seeing anything on Druid 2 for the Atari 8-bit machines by the time I was working at TelecomSoft. I did get to test Druid 2 on the Amiga though, which was Pete Molyneux's first ever game!


Rogue Trooper

Was Ninja Master your worse ever release? LOL, i bought it, it was awful! or would that 'honour' go to don't Buy This'?


Richard

Errr... there are a few that I think were quite bad. Obviously DBT! was meant to be bad. Can you imagine anyone deliberately doing something like that now? I think 'GI Hero' was pretty awful, as was 'Whirligig' and a few budget games I could think of!




Rogue Trooper

A lot of your games featured a Rob Hubbard soundtrack (Thrust,Warhawk, BMX Kidz, I.Ball etc) were you aware a lot of us would buy the C64 versions of your games just for the music? And what happened with review copies of Thrust? Story goes the music was messed up, so it received a lower score than it deserved in Zzap 64.

Richard

Sorry. I don't have any first or second hand knowledge to fall back on.


Rogue Trooper

Star Glider and Weird Dreams ended up being played as part of a saturday morning kids show on ITV (Get Fresh?) how did that come about and did it help sales of those 2 titles?


Richard

I'm pretty sure that Jez (San) told me that Starglider benefited from the TV exposure. Weird Dreams didn't because there was a huge delay between the TV version and the released game due to the sale of Firebird and Rainbird to MicroProse. It also didn't help that the game itself was weird (duh!) and far too hard to play!


Rogue Trooper

The Speccy 128K version of Carrier command was stunning. Not assmooth as ST version, but fast, better sound FX etc, plus had features not found in the 16 Bit version. The C64 version however, very different kettle of fish, top down 2D as C64 CPU too slow to handlethe 3D, but having seen Battle Command on C64 cartridge, did you ever consider releasing a 'Special edition' of Carrier command of C64 cartridge?


Richard

No. To be honest, I don't think anyone really wanted the C64 version at the end. The Spectrum version took so long (partly due to me finding so many bugs in it!) that BT had sold Rainbird off before the last few conversions were finished, and they really didn't put much effort into the C64 version at all. IMHO I don't think it should have been attempted at all, and I think very low sales reflected that opinion. I'm pretty sure that TelecomSoft had never dipped a toe into C64 cartridges and MicroProse certainly weren't going to do that for a format that was almost dead by then.


Rogue Trooper

What 'went wrong' with 'Dynamic Duo'? Coming from the team behind Savage, i expected something rather special, but this turned out to bit of a disaster across all 3 8 Bit micro's. Did you ever consider scrapping the game?


Richard

What could possibly go wrong with a game that involved a duck on a man's head? I can clearly remember thinking that the game had budget written all over it, yet somehow it ended up on the Firebird label instead of Silverbird. No doubt Fergus (Probe's owner) managed to convince a few people to release it at full price due to the strength of Savage! (which was developed under the name 'Roman Games' for a while!)


Rogue Trooper

Re:Star Trek, there were numerous delay's between you announcing you had secured the licence and game appearing on ST, what were the nature of the delays?-also game was originally ST only, it was then converted to the C64- was the conversion an attempt to claw back money on the cost of producing the ST game and securing the licence?


Richard

From what I've been told, it was just slow progress and the delay of getting approval from the US. Stuff had to be sent out to Paramount and it took a while before they'd look at it and comment back. Remember how long ago this was - no email or Internet back then. Also, the ST wasn't big in the US at all so C64 and PC had to be included so the game could be sold in the US.


Rogue Trooper

Was Steve Bak's Goldrunner originally planned as a full game? or did the reaction of him showing off an ST game demo to the PCW show, which proved the ST could cope with high-speed, horizontal, parallax scrolling, in all 16 colours, spur him onto turning it into a full blown game?.


Richard

Err. Goldrunner was by Microdeal. Steve's game for Firebird for Return to Genesis
!

Rogue Trooper

Samuari warrior: Battles Of Usagi Yojimbo, made for an unusual choice for conversion to computer, but was a brilliant one (i had and loved the C64 game, picked up a graphic novel, years later, didn't take to it at all), which received great reviews, seemed to have decent advertising, but i never saw a sequel, were sales lower than expected?.


Richard

I think so. The game was 8-bit only at a time when the rising star was 16-bit.


Rogue Trooper

Telecomsoft lured away Graftgold coders of Morpheus+Magnetron at a PCw show, with events developing into a rather public falling out, court hearings, finally a settlement etc. In hindsight, could the situation have been handled very differently and thus avoiding the whole 'dragged through the courts' aspect?


Richard

Yes! (Full story from both sides can be found in two RG articles I wrote in issues #77 for the Hewson perspective and #98 from the BT side). Legally BT felt obliged to throw in an injunction because Graftgold had given Hewson an early development version of Morpheus even though no formal contract ever existed between the developer and the publisher. Clearly Hewson weren't going to publish that version as it was incomplete, but BT's lawyers felt they had to protect the investment they'd just made in signing up Gratfgold and that game in particular. To the men in suits, that was just standard business practice, but to Hewson it seemed a very odd thing to do and it tied up the release in legal knots for over 6 months before a sensible and amicable agreement was reached out of court.


Rogue Trooper

What sort of play testing went into your games? Gothik on C64 for example was frustrating, as screen only scrolled once you got near the edge, so you could walk slap bang into a nasty and Pandora, with it's very Paradroid looking interior of spaceship, was great, but the lack of a save game option was an annoyance.




Rogue Trooper

Crosswize (Sidewize II) on the 128K Speccy, didn't seem to take any advantage of the extra Ram, sound seemed no better, no extra levelsetc, still a multi-load etc.any reasons the extra ram wasn't tapped into?.


Richard

Crosswize came fairly late on in the publishing deal with Odin, and 8-bit sales were on the decline by then. Only a few games really took advantage of the 128k to make that extra development effort worthwhile, so it wasn't that unusual to still see plain vanilla 48k games being produced at that time. In fact, only a few of the Firebird releases from that period had 128k enhancements. Most didn't.


Rogue Trooper

How would you describe your relationship with the games press back in the day? people like myself used to use the likes of Zzap 64 as a games buying 'bible' and they often seemed a nightmare to please. How did it feel to see Zzap tearing into your products at times (Gothik 44%, gunstar 38%, Denarius 57%, Pandora 60%, Beam Rider 51% etc etc). Were you ever tempted to write in and say you thought they were being a little unfair/too harsh?.


Richard

Press relationships were love/hate most of the time. There were times when magazines were threatened with advertising revenues being pulled by publishers if certain games weren't looked at in a favourable light. I'm not saying we did this, but it was known to happen! You had to take the rough with the smooth, but there were a few very unfair reviews but on the flipside sometimes games we weren't that happy with got good reviews so it was definitely swings and roundabouts!




Richard

That's a marketing question I can't really answer, but Gerry was actually re-released as a budget game the following year.


Rogue Trooper

Sega's Action Fighter was a pretty obscure coin-op to say the least, how on earth did you end up with the conversion? (and Zzap didn't rate it on either C64 or Amiga either, lol).


Richard

It was probably because it was cheap. That was a period when TelecomSoft signed up a number of coin-op conversions from Japanese companies. Jaleco's P47 was another one that was odd, but sometimes you get a few good ones too. For example, Bubble Bobble wasn't what Firebird was going after. To sign Flying Shark, Bubble Bobble had to be signed up too!


Rogue Trooper

You released a few Sensible software titles ( OH NO! and Galaxibirds for example) who approached who, in terms of getting these games done and out?


Richard

Sensible's first coding job for Firebird was actually a C64 conversion of the Spectrum adventure title Runestone, which Chris Yates polished off in less than two weeks. Unfortunately, an internal dispute meant that Sensible were never paid and the conversion was never published. Firebird claimed that the game ran too slowly, but Jon Hare believed the problem was caused by Firebird's C64 loader. The dispute was never resolved, so the C64 conversion was never released. However, GTW64 managed to unearth a near finished version a few years ago. Galaxibirds was written quite quickly and was perfect for a budget release, but I'd have to ask Jon to try and remember who contacted whom and when!




Richard

It's a common misconception that BT bought Odin. BT approached Odin in 1985 and negotiated a contract (paid in monthly installments) to exclusively market Odin's games worldwide for twelve months. The contract specified that Odin would produce ten titles for BT across a number of different publishing platforms. It also included a clause that gave marketing rights to a game back to Odin if Telecomsoft failed to promote the title for a period of six months. For a while, Telecomsoft also used part of Odin's own warehouse space for storing unsold stock of Rainbird, Firebird and Beyond games. The deal ended up going on for longer, mainly due to creative differences between publisher and developer, payment problems and all manner of other issues. By the end of the contract the company had closed and the various management, coders, musicians and artists all went their separate ways.


Rogue Trooper

What happened with EPT (working title which stood for 'Elite Piss Take!) on paper it sounded like an Epic ST/Amiga space opera, with everything Elite did, but you could explore space stations, talk to other space jocks, go into cryo sleep to speed up time etc.


Richard

Starting at the end, EPT finally saw the light of day in 2007 to help mark the 5th anniversary of my web site. The full story and a whole plethora of info is available at http://birdsanctuary.co.uk/ept/i.php.


Rogue Trooper

Did you perhaps feel market was 'too crowded' with games of this type as you had elite, Starglider 1+2, Hewson had Moonfall, Gremlin had FOFT, Space Rogue was out etc. (great working name mind).


Richard

Space games were very popular. If it was good enough, it would have sold regardless.


zapiy

Do you know of any unreleased code that you may still have in a box somewhere?


Richard

The one thing I wish I had done when BT sold us to MicroProse was to have kept copies of stuff that was sitting in drawers in the TelecomSoft office that never got to be finished. There is a photo on my web site showing me next to the filing cabinet that contained everything we were working on, including lost stuff like the Spectrum and CPC versions of Star Trek, Dick Special for the Amiga, Broadsword on the ST, Dragon on the ST, Lazers and Labyrinths on the ST and so on. Developers do sometimes unearth old stuff, like how I was able to bring EPT back to life almost 20 years later. The search goes on, but those versions lie with the developers rather than the publisher if they are out there somewhere.


zapiy

What are you up to these days?


Richard

Apart from my web site and writing for Retro Gamer, I worked in Higher Education at a University in IT Support where I do - amongst other things - IT training.


James

The long answer can be found in About James Leavey (www.jamesleavey.info). The short answer is that I am now in my 66th year and a grandfather and have lived in Cowes, Isle of Wight for the last decade. Currently I am putting together an ebook of the 240 columns I wrote for Virgin Holidays Cruises (see www.jamesleavey.info) - the company moved this summer and all the blogs are currently in limbo, but still online, many of them - mine, anway, featuring kind-of relevant links to one or more youtube videos. I am also putting together a collection of my smoker-friendly travel articles(as former editor of The FOREST Guide to Smoking in London, and Scotland, etc)

As a sideline, I work with two friends, one whom runs The Decent Cigar Emporium in Dublin, for which I write the occasional very politically incorrect blog (this website will betransformed before Christmas and, I'm told, will heavily feature my blogs. Another friend runs www.cigars.co.uk


zapiy

What would you say was your favourite title from the complete catalogue of games you were directly involved in and why?


Richard

Intensity, Carrier Command, Starglider 2, The Guild of Thieves, The Jewels of Darkness spring immediately to mind.




The Laird

At one point Firebird seemed to be quite focused on releasing arcade conversions but then seemed to stop and go back to more original stuff, why was this?


Richard

A change in management and the realisation that coin-op conversions sold better on the whole than original titles. Sad but true.


The Laird

Is there a reason why Firebird never decided to break into the console market?


Richard

If the intended MBO had happened rather than being sold to MicroProse, then we would have tried publishing on the PC Engine and the NES as we had both those consoles in the office and had looked at them seriously and our bosses had started discussions.


The Laird

Did 'Don't Buy This!' actually sell well?


Richard

Yep! Very well. James might recall the sales figures.


The Laird

Silverbird released some great budget games but only recently I found out just how few games they actually published (I actually owned them all) how come more focus was not put on this label?


Richard

Depends on what you mean by not very many. The budget label had 186 different titles published (383 in total when you include multiple format releases) from the original Firebird Silver, Firebird Silver 1.99 and Silverbird ranges from 1984 - 1989. Also, the market was changing and 8-bit budget games were on the decline sales-wise. A few 16-bit games were released, but the expense of 16-bit development made it uneconomical for original titles. Had the label survived under BT stewardship,(MicroProse sold it off fairly quickly) I think it would have been used to re-release old 16-bit full-price Firebird games in the end.


The Laird

Again on Silverbird, how come Peter Pack Rat, a conversion of the Atari arcade game, was never released at full price and went straight to this label?


Richard

I think it wasn't considered a big enough title. It was fairly unknown and wasn't a technically impressive game so it didn't warrant a big RRP.
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Offline Rogue Trooper

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Re: RVG Interviews Firebird Software.
« Reply #1 on: September 30, 2013, 19:52:09 PM »
Superb stuff!

Bit of a shame they did'nt know anything on A8 Druid II, but really superb answers.

The honesty in particular stood out when talking about things like C64 Carrier Command (which given the hardware's slow CPU, really should not have been attempted), the pressure from sales+marketing to get a game out, when a few weeks more responding to flaws found during playtesting would have resulted in a better game, better reviews, probably better sales...publishers threatening to stop advertising in a magazine if certain games not looked at in favorable light, i loved reading.

Ditto to find Firebird did'nt actually want or go after Bubble Bobble, it was just in with the deal....


do recal a preview of Dick Special, looked great, pity he had'nt kept the disks....(mind you game might have needed a name change...lol).

Offline zapiy

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Re: RVG Interviews Firebird Software.
« Reply #2 on: September 30, 2013, 22:09:32 PM »
Quote from: "The Laird"
Crap load of typos in there :16:

The last answer to my question is a bit strange. I said Silverbird and then in the answer he said "you mean Silverbird" erm yeah, that is what I said!  :o

Tell me about it lol i was on overload trying to sort them.. And you actually said Silversoft and i have put that back so it looks right lol.. Typos indeed son.

Great interview though.
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Offline TL

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Re: RVG Interviews Firebird Software.
« Reply #3 on: September 30, 2013, 22:12:34 PM »
Ah bollocks, you should have spotted that and changed it - I change enough of your typos! :3:

Offline zapiy

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Re: RVG Interviews Firebird Software.
« Reply #4 on: September 30, 2013, 22:14:32 PM »
I had a headache lol.. have a quick look and send me the edits and i will correct that then delete these posts to not ruin the thread lol
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Offline TL

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Re: RVG Interviews Firebird Software.
« Reply #5 on: September 30, 2013, 22:17:25 PM »
Quote from: "zapiy"
I had a headache lol.. have a quick look and send me the edits and i will correct that then delete these posts to not ruin the thread lol

Easier just to edit it myself  :10:

Will do it tomorrow.

Offline TrekMD

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Re: RVG Interviews Firebird Software.
« Reply #6 on: October 01, 2013, 00:19:19 AM »
Wow, very nice interview! 

Going to the final frontier, gaming...

Offline zapiy

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Re: RVG Interviews Firebird Software.
« Reply #7 on: October 13, 2013, 00:08:05 AM »
Did you get around to this Laird?
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Re: RVG Interviews Firebird Software.
« Reply #8 on: October 14, 2013, 17:43:11 PM »
With me owning an Atari 800xl of the time of firebird on its 8-bit days, they did very little on the a8, but what they did do do was excellent, just a shame you can count them on one hand, but darn it the c64 and the speccy got all the good games boo... :20:

@laird, I'm joining the band wagon and also asking did you get around to correcting the interview too?

Offline TL

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Re: RVG Interviews Firebird Software.
« Reply #9 on: October 14, 2013, 18:39:11 PM »
Sorry, combination of not having time and completely forgetting. I will get round to it.